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Mal J Nutr 3: 149-159, 1997

Bifidobacteria: their significance in human intestinal health

Ishibashi N, Yaeshima T and Hayasawa H.

Morinaga Milk Industry Co. Ltd., Nutritional Science Laboratory, 5-1-83, Higashihara, Zama-
City, Kanagawa, 228-8583, Japan


Discovery and properties of Bifidobacterium

Bifidobacterium was first isolated in 1899 from a healthy breast-fed infant by Tissier of the
Pasteur Institute in France. It is an anaerobic, Gram-positive, non-sporeforming, pleomorphic
rod, and was originally named Bacillus bifidus communis. The name signifies the branching
morphology of the bacteria; bifidus in Latin meaning cleft in two parts. Later, the bacterium was
once placed within the genus Lactobacillus as L. bifidus. In 1960s, it was accepted as an
independent genus and classified as Bifidobacterium. Apart from the properties mentioned
above, the main phenotypic characteristics of Bifidobacterium is producing lactic acid and acetic
acid as the main products of glucose utilization.

Bifidobacterium species and classification

There are currently about 30 known Bifidobacterium species. The Bifidobacterium species that
inhabit the human intestinal tract are rather distinct from those that inhabit the intestines of
animals (Mitsuoka, 1984). The representative species of human origin include B. longum, B.
breve, B. infantis, B. bifidum, B. adoltescentis and B. pseudocatenulatum. Representatives of
animal-derived species include B. pseudolongum, B. thermophilus and B. animalis. Species of
animal origin are never isolated from the human intestinal tract and human origin species are
almost never found in animal intestines. The reason for this host-specificity is unknown, but is
suspected to be due to differences among species in the ability to colonize the host intestinal
tracts. Among the Bifidobacterium species used in various yogurts, B. animalis is often identified
(Yaeshima et al, 1996). The reason for using this species is that animal-derived species are more
acid-resistant and therefore preserve better in the yogurt. Recently, the B. animalis strains
isolated from these yogurts have been found to have some genetic differences compared to the
type strain of B. animalis, and these strains have been named B. lactis (Meile et al, 1997). This
species is also not an inhabitant of the human intestinal tract. The use of human-origin species as
food supplement seems to be the reasonable and correct choice.

Ecology in the human intestinal tract

Before birth, the human foetus is germ-free and intestinal bacteria do not exist. From the time of
birth, bacteria begin to colonize the intestinal tract forming the intestinal microflora. At birth,
many bacterial species gain access into the intestinal tract, but bifidobacteria gradually become
established as the main bacteria, and predominate in the intestinal microflora during the neonatal
period. This tendency is especially marked in breast-fed infants. According to a study,
Ishibashi N, Yaeshima T & Hayasawa H

bifidobacteria constitute over 95% of the intestinal flora in breast-fed infants (Yoshioka et al,
1991). The increased resistance to infection in breast-fed infants may partly be attributed to the
predominating bifidobacteria in the intestinal microflora. The number of bifidobacteria in bottle-
fed infants is lower than that in breast-fed infants. Nevertheless, even in bottle-fed infants,
bifidobacteria remain to be the predominant bacteria. Bifidobacteria which are dominant during
infancy gradually decrease in number from the time of weaning, and bacteria such as
Bacteroides and Eubacterium become predominant. The changes in bifidobacteria with age are
shown in Figure 1 (Mitsuoka, 1978). Even in adults, Bifidobacterium is one of the main and
important component of the intestinal microflora. The number of bifidobacteria is further
reduced during old age, accompanied by increases of Clostridium and other species. Figure 2
compares the electron micrographs of the faeces from a breast-fed infant and an adult. The
bacteria seen in the faeces of the breast-fed infant are almost exclusively bifidobacteria and no
other bacteria are observable. In the faeces of the adult, however, a wide variety of bacterial
types are observed such as rods and cocci, large and small, but there are very few bacteria with
the morphology of bifidobacteria. This difference in microflora is also observed by culturing
faeces. The intestinal microflora changes with age, accompanied by a reduction of bifidobacteria.
The effects of changes of the intestinal microflora on the intestinal environment are shown in
Table 1. The concentrations of intestinal putrefactive products such as ammonia and indole and
the activities of enzymes involved in the production of these substances are extremely low in
breast-fed infants compared to adults. Although these changes cannot be attributed entirely to the
differences in the intestinal microflora, a strong effect can be expected.

Figure 1. Change of intestinal flora with age (Mitsuoka 1978)

The intestinal flora of an adult is composed of approximately 100 species of bacteria, which are
present at a level of 1010 to 1011 per gram of colonic content (Figure 3). These intestinal bacteria
can be classified into 3 groups depending on their effect on the intestinal environment; that is,
beneficial bacteria, harmful bacteria and bacteria exhibiting an intermediate property. Harmful
bacteria are those that possess pathogenicity or transform food components into harmful
substances, and they include Clostridium, Veillonella, Proteus and the Enterobacteriaceae
family. Beneficial bacteria represented by Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus suppress the
harmful bacteria and exert many beneficial physiological effects. They have no harmful effect
Bifidobacteria & human intestinal health

Figure 2. Electron micrographs of infant (A) and adult (B) faeces

Figure 3. Interrelationships between intestinal flora and the human health (Mitsuoka 1978)
Ishibashi N, Yaeshima T & Hayasawa H

whatsoever on the host. In the large intestine, the number of Lactobacillus is approximately
1/100 that of Bifidobacterium, and the influence on the intestinal environment is less than that of
Bifidobacterium. Finally, Bacteroides, Eubacterium and anaerobic streptococci belong to the
intermediate group. These bacteria do not show any virulence under normal conditions, but they
may cause opportunistic infections when the host immunity or resistance is lowered. Figure 3
shows the interrelationship between intestinal bacteria and human health. Many kinds of bacteria
produce harmful substances such as ammonia, amines, hydrogen sulfide and indole from
proteins. Consumption of fats increases bile acid secretion, and bile acids are converted by many
intestinal bacteria into secondary bile acids which are supposed to have a carcinogenic potential.
These show that intestinal bacteria have great influences on the intestinal environment, and the
intestinal environment in turn influences the health of the host. The levels of bacteria in the
intestinal tract change due to factors such as food and living environment and they are competing
with each other, resulting in change of the intestinal microflora. A favorable intestinal microflora
can create a healthy intestinal environment. A favorable intestinal microflora consists of a low
level of harmful bacteria and a high level of beneficial bacteria represented by bifidobacteria.
Table 1. Faecal characteristics of Infant and Adult

Infant (3 months) Adult (23 ages)

Bifidobacteria (%)* 96% 19%

pH 5.30 6.4
Ammonia (µ mol/g) 13.20 54.0
Indole (µ g/g) 0.76 56.2
p-cresol (µ g/g) ND 68.7
Phenol (µ g/g) 0.72 7.6
Urease** 22.50 911.0
Tryptophanase** 0.33 3.7
β-glucronidase** 2.09 33.4

* Bifidobacteria percentage in fecal microflora

** Enzyme activity: µ mol/h/g

Physiological effect of bifidobacteria

This section will describe the actual physiological effects of bifidobacteria. First, the most
important physiological effect is the action of intestinal conditioning. The intestinal conditioning
action is an overall effect of improving the intestinal environment, which include improvement
of the intestinal flora, inhibition of intestinal putrefactive substances, and improvement of the
faecal properties and defecation state (alleviation of constipation or diarrhea). As mentioned
earlier, in addition to lactic acid, bifidobacteria produce acetic acid with a strong bactericidal
action, which has been shown to suppress harmful bacteria. This effect has also been
demonstrated in vitro (Araya-Kojima et al, 1995). Table 2 shows the changes of the relative
share (percentage) of Bifidobacterium and other main bacteria in the intestinal flora after
consuming a bifidobacteria-containing yogurt (B. longum BB536) compared to a standard yogurt
containing no bifidobacteria (Yaeshima, 1997). The proportion of Bifidobacterium in the
intestinal microflora is increased significantly by consumption of the B. longum BB536 yogurt.
A simultaneous decrease in ammonia, which is a representative putrefactive product, is observed
(Figure 4). Figure 5 shows the effect of consuming this yogurt on the frequency of defecation in
Bifidobacteria & human intestinal health

subjects with a constipation tendency. A significant increase in frequency of defecation can be

observed after ingestion of the bifidobacteria yogurt. Administration of bifidobacteria [B. breve
M-16V (Akiyama et al, 1994), B. longum BB536 (Akiyama et al, 1994)] to extremely small
premature infants of 1000g or less enhances early colonization of bifidobacteria and formation of
a bifidobacteria flora, accompanied by reduction of necrotizing enterocolitis and other intestinal
tract infections.

Table 2. Influence of Bifidobacterium longum BB536 yogurt administration on the relative percentages
of fecal bacterial groups (Yaeshima 1997)

Bacteria Control period Interval period Test period

Enterobacteriaceae 1.6 ± 1.7a 1.4 ± 1.9 1.4 ± 2.7

Bifidobacteria 23.7 ± 14.0 23.1 ± 12.0 34.4 ± 19.2b,c
Eubacteria 16.4 ± 9.9 17.2 ± 11.7 12.8 ± 9.1
Bacteroidaceae 51.1± 20.3 54.4 ± 18.1 48.4 ± 19.5
Total aerobic bacteria 4.0 ± 5.9 1.9 ± 1.7 1.7 ± 2.8
Total anaerobic bacteria 96.0 ± 5.9 98.1 ± 1.7 98.3 ± 2.8

Volunteers (n = 11) consumed 100g of standard yogurt (control period) or B. longum BB536
yogurt (test period) per day
a: Data shown are the mean of two values and SD (n = 11)
b: p<0.05 (compared with control period)
c: p<0.05 (compared with interval period)

The next important effect of bifidobacteria is the immunological activation effect. Bifidobacterial
cell or cell component have been reported to induce specific and nonspecific antibody
production, nonspecific resistance to toxins, and antitumor effects. In mice mono-associated with
B. longum BB536, increased production of anti-B. longum antibodies and total IgA can be
observed with the acquisition of resistance to pathogenic E. coli (Yamazaki et al 1991). The cell
wall of B. infantis has been shown to suppress Meth-A fibrosarcoma in mice (Sekine et al,
1985). Bifidobacteria also demonstrate antitumor activities. Administration of lyophilized B.
longum BB536 has been reported to inhibit cancers or aberrant crypt foci (ACF) formation
induced by imidazoquinoline derivative (IQ) (Reddy & Rivenson 1993) or azoxymethane
(Kulkarni & Reddy 1994). Figure 6 shows the results of administration of lyophilized B. longum
BB536 on IQ-induced carcinogenesis in various organs (Reddy & Rivenson 1993).
Administration of IQ to untreated mice induces cancers in the liver, intestines, and mammary
gland. However administration of B. longum BB536 inhibits cancers in all these organs,
especially, a 100% inhibition is achieved in the large intestine. Administration of B. longum
BB536 concomitant with lactulose has been reported to achieve an additive effect of ACF
inhibition (Challa et al, 1997). B. longum BB536 has also been shown to possess an action of
increasing bone strength (Igarashi et al, 1994) which is supposed to be a result of enhanced
calcium absorption.

Growth factor of bifidobacteria

Early studies on growth factors of bifidobacteria were research on in vitro growth promoting
factors. The growth factors found in these studies include human milk components of N-
Ishibashi N, Yaeshima T & Hayasawa H

acetylglucosamine-containing oligosaccharides, enzymatic cleavage products of proteins,

glycoproteins and pantethine compounds (Rasic & Kurmann 1983). Studies on in vivo growth

Figure 4. Effect of BB536 yogurt administration on the fecal ammonia concentration (n = 11)
(Yaeshima 1997)

Figure 5. Effect of BB536 yogurt administration on the defecation frequency of women volunteers (n =
39) (Yaeshima 1997)
a: p<0.001 (compared with control yogurt period)
b: p<0.001 (compared with no yogurt period)
c: p<0.01 (compared with no yogurt period)
Bifidobacteria & human intestinal health

factors then became popular, and oligosaccharides such as lactulose (Petury 1957, Terada et al,
1992) as well as dietary fibers have been found to be effective in promoting intestinal growth of
bifidobacteria. These oligosaccharides have several important properties. They are basically
indigestible in the human digestive tract and reach the large intestine intact, and also that they are
preferentially utilized by bifidobacteria.

Figure 7 shows the changes in proportion of bifidobacteria in the intestinal flora after the
consumption of lactulose (Terada et al, 1992). The proportion of bifidobacteria increases
markedly when lactulose is consumed at 3g/day, and decreases when lactulose consumption is
discontinued. Also, faecal ammonia and other putrefactive substances are suppressed by taking
lactulose. Therefore, as a bifidobacterial growth factor, lactulose at a relatively small dose is
effective in promoting intestinal growth of bifidobacteria. Utilizing this property, lactulose has
long been used as a treatment for portal-systemic encephalopathy and also for alleviatig
constipation. The mechanisms of action of lactulose in the management of these diseases are that
lactulose promotes the growth of bifidobacteria which suppress ammonia production in the
intestine, and the organic acids produced by the bifidobacteria promote peristalsis of the
intestine. Lactulose has been used in a wide variety of foods, especially as a supplement in infant
formulas, contributing greatly to the establishment of a bifidobacteria flora in infants (Tamura et
al, 1993).

Figure 6. Effect of dietary B. longum BB536 on IQ-induced carcinogenesis. (Reddy 1993)

a. Intestines represents colon and small intestine.
b. Numbers in parenthesis are number of animals.
c. BL diet, control diet containing 0.5% lyophilized B. longum BB536.
d. Significantly different from its respective control diet group.
Ishibashi N, Yaeshima T & Hayasawa H

Figure 7. Effect of lactulose on the fecal Bifidobacterium (Terada 1992)

Application of bifidobacteria

With the intent to actively utilize the physiological effects of bifidobacteria mentioned above,
bifidobacteria have been widely applied in foods, medicine and animal feeds. In this type of
products, viable bifidobacteria are ingested to improve the intestinal microflora, which in turn
improves the intestinal environment and contributes to the health of the intestine, with the
ultimate aim to prevent or improve intestinal tract diseases or infection. The application of
bifidobacteria in foodstuff had been practiced in Germany since the old days (Mayer, 1948), and
was actively adopted in Japan in the early 1980s (Ishibashi, 1993). Later it was spread to Europe
and is now used worldwide (Tamime et al, 1995). The most representative application of
bifidobacteria in foods is bifidobacteria yogurt. Another popular product is bifidobacteria milk
which is non-fermented milk with the addition of bifidobacteria. The concept of applying
bifidobacteria in these foods is to supply viable bifidobacteria. However, to maintain a desirable
level of viable bacteria in the bifidobacteria yogurt or milk until the expiry date requires high
level technological know-how. For example, bifidobacteria do not grow in milk under normal
conditions, and require special growth promoting substances. In addition, bifidobacteria are strict
anaerobes and sensitive to oxygen. Special techniques are required throughout the whole
manufacturing process to exclude the effect of oxygen. The technology of producing lyophilized
powder has seen great advances, and powder preparation containing viable cells of 1010 to 1011
per gram is being marketed as food supplement. High quality lyophilized powder can be
preserved long-term at room temperature for more than one year. It can be applied in many
products in a wide variety of forms such as powdered health food and medicine, capsules and


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